Why I Ignored Email for a Month...by Patrick McCarthy
The unexpected pleasures (and challenges) of an unplugged vacation.
A s I prepared for four weeks out of the office — the longest vacation I have taken in my 30-year career — I did the unthinkable: I stopped reading my email.
I sent an "out of office" message to colleagues that read: "To enjoy maximum benefit of my time away, I will not be checking my email." I then provided an emergency contact number where I would be reached while out of the country. At the same time, I set up an email auto-reply with the date I would return and the contact number for our main reception desk. I did not include the now standard, "I will only have intermittent access to my email," nor did I say that my replies would be delayed. I was ready to cut the email cord. To truly unplug.
I direct a busy academic medical library that has the same problems as most workplaces. I was also leaving in the wake of an unresolved work conflict that promised to get worse before it got better, especially if left unattended by a monthlong absence. I unplugged anyway.
An early test. As I prepared to depart for the airport — as if to challenge my resolve — I received an urgent phone message from my office. I listened to the familiar voice of one of our key supervisors, the person responsible for arranging staffing of the library seven days a week. His message said he had "something important" (never a good sign) to discuss with me. When I called him back, he told me he was resigning and would start his new job in two weeks — halfway through my vacation.
My plan for an email disconnect was already being tested but I wasn’t going to give up that easily. Caught off guard by the news, I talked with him about staff coverage and who might temporarily take over his role. Then I called my boss, the dean, and we discussed options (both for this unexpected departure and the other pending work problem). I reminded the dean that I would be out of email contact. He wished me safe travels and said, "If I call you, you’ll know there is a real problem."
I mentally noted one essential condition of a monthlong email hiatus: a supportive boss who is comfortable with you being off the grid for that long. (A few years ago, Germany passed a law making it illegal for managers to even email their vacationing employees. But I knew we were a long way from Germany.)
Fear of disconnection. At an earlier stage in my work life, I would have been extremely anxious about being gone for a month, let alone not checking email while I was away, particularly in the aftermath of unresolved work problems. I would have fretted over my inability to directly deal with a situation like this, even via email, while I was gone.
Experience, as they say, brings perspective, including unmasking the false assumption that our organizations can’t manage without us. I have worked more than 25 years for a university founded in 1818. I knew they would be just fine without me for a month.
I am also fortunate to have colleagues who pitch in and solve problems for each other during absences. I like to think of that as a sign of the positive workplace culture we have created and a reflection of the goodwill we have accrued over time, based on relationships of trust and support that have weathered both good and bad times.
The benefits of unplugging. Many academics work on nine-month contracts and use their summers to do overseas research or intensive fieldwork where communication is restricted. Most still send and receive work email while they’re away. For administrators like me — working on 12-month contracts — constant email access is the norm, even on vacation.
We rationalize that behavior as a way to put out brush fires before they become infernos. In the past, I created auto-replies about having "limited access" to email during my vacations, all the while assiduously checking and responding to work messages nearly every day. I told myself and my family that I was just "staying on top of things."
In the end, what that ubiquitous connection to work takes from us is a sense of proportion about our lives. There are only so many hours in the day, only so many plans and priorities to which we can give our attention. Unless we consciously choose otherwise, the most dominant and pressing parts of our work win out.
Once I really unplugged, a surprising thing happened. Despite anxiety about what I might be missing, I began to feel calm. My thoughts and focus shifted to my family and our time together. Admittedly, I still thought a lot about work, but now in ways that were more reflective and holistic than the daily grind of short-term problem solving.
Time away. So what’s the harm in occasionally checking email when on vacation?
Once you respond to that first urgent message, the jig is up. The sender knows you are reading messages. Really unplugging means risking that something urgent will come up, but it is equally likely that the pressing issue will have dissipated or been resolved by the time you read about it later.
Therein lies part of the wisdom of an extended email holiday: Everything will still be there waiting for you, only now it will be sorted by the passage of time into the irrelevant (very likely the majority of emails) and the still relevant (almost certainly a tiny minority).
Things don’t fall apart without us. It is a sign of good management that our organizations can operate effectively in our absence. The opposite is also true. If our workplaces struggle to function on a short-term basis without us, something is wrong with how we are managing.
While I was away and out of touch, the supervisor who resigned carefully coordinated the smooth transition of his duties to a colleague. Everything went off without a hitch — even after he left. He wrote me a farewell email that said in part, "I really appreciated your management style, and it is one that I tried to mimic. … You had expectations and direction for me, but your hands-off approach allowed me to develop important problem-solving and leadership skills."
Our need to control and hyper-manage our workplaces can be stifling and dysfunctional. Conversely, when we hire well and trust the autonomy and judgment of our colleagues, they — and our organizations — can and do thrive.
The paradox of constant connection. For far too many administrators, the rhythm of our daily lives revolves around email. We wake up to it and say goodnight to it. Throughout the day, we struggle to stay on top of it and derive some sense of accomplishment by dealing with it.
But hypervigilant connection comes at a cost. The more we tune in to our iPhones, iPads, and other mobile devices, the more we tune out and disconnect from the people and places around us. We interact with others in-person with divided and shortened attention spans, under the false pretext that we are somehow more engaged through constant electronic attachment.
What matters most. Many of us have an abundance of material things. What we lack is time and the luxury of giving our undivided attention to something. Time out and time away renews and refreshes while making us more engaged in ways that truly matter.
A lot happened while I was away. My 27-year-old daughter got engaged. My 5-year-old daughter learned to swim in the Croatian Adriatic Sea like her mother and grandmother before her. I was available to enjoy and appreciate both of those milestone events.
Most important, this break from electronic interaction provided me the freedom to move my professional and personal focus back where it belongs — from the partial to the complete, and from the fragmented to the whole.
Postscript: I came back to 1,050 unread emails (excluding spam). Only nine of them — less than 1 percent — required a prompt response.
One unanticipated problem did occur: I’d forgotten my password when I tried to log into my email.
Patrick McCarthy is associate dean of libraries and director of the Medical Center Library at Saint Louis University. He can reached by email — when he is not on vacation — at firstname.lastname@example.org.